4 December 2013

Brackets and Voice

Some authorities, and some opinionated people with pens or keyboards, advise against using brackets for parenthesis. There is no need to go so far. Bracketed comments are often useful. It may be counter productive to exclude this writing device to satisfy misplaced pedantry.

1. Initial Observations

Writers nevertheless should probably limit their bracket-use. If more than half the text is inside brackets, coherence may be lost.

On the other hand, words within brackets can help change a piece's rhythm, pace, and energy. One may notice an open bracket makes the words that follow it sound different in one's head. The internal voice, in my experience, begins to whisper in a breathless stream until the closing bracket slams into place.

After a closing bracket the next few words are almost barked. The first few words after a closing bracket feel quicker and clipped, as if the mind takes a breath after whispering and then jumps until an ordinary rhythm returns.

2. An Example

The following quote may make little sense to those who have not studied epistemology. Regardless, consider Robert Audi's prose in Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (2nd edn, Routledge 2003):
[W]hat entitles us to the premise that nature is uniform? Hume would reply that it is not knowable a priori, and that to say that we know it through experience – a way of knowing it that would depend on inductive reasoning – would beg the question against him. (On the Humean view, if our belief is the uniformity principle is grounded wholly in premises that only inductively support it, we do not know it.) I believe that this Humean response is highly plausible. The problem of induction must be approached differently. (p 311, emphasis added to highlight the latin.)
Did you notice the rhythm change within and immediately around the brackets?

3. Conclusion

Earlier, I said 'in my experience', but of course I probably mean 'in my opinion': I've only been in my head, so I suppose the rhythm my internal voice speaks with is unique. Also, I don't recall ever hearing another person's internal voice. There is still an important point here, an observation that must hold for many readers: brackets can change a text's voice.

Style and voice are often discussed in relation to proper, or good, writing. But their definitions are often left obscure. I don't have a solution to define 'style' and 'voice' today. I do, however, suggest (student) writers consider the effect that bracketed phrases or statements have on the reader's comprehension.

I will clarify the ideas in the quote in another post. It involves some interesting concepts that deserve more dedication than a postscript to a post about brackets.

Created: 4 December 2013. Version 1.0.

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